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Being a lover of dark ale. I was ecstatic to hear the news that the National Winter Ales Festival (NWAF) was going to take place on my doorstep. However my sense of excitement was also met with concern for my region. The annual October Norwich Beer Festival has effectively outgrown its venue and is always rammed. Could Norwich’s St Andrews Hall accommodate and satisfy the demands of a National audience? Well, here are my thoughts…
For myself like anyone else in Eastern England, Norwich is easy to get to via rail. The venue is a 15 minute amble from the station. London and the surrounding area is also fairly well connected (as long as there aren’t engineering works!) . Arguably though, East Anglia is tricky to do for the rest of the country. The NWAF has previously taken place in Derby, Manchester, Burton-on-Trent and Glasgow. Now in my opinion, Norwich is far easier to get to than Burton or Glasgow but I can see why there have been some concerns at the choice of location. For me when considering this the questions are ‘Can you attend this festival without staying overnight?’ and ‘Will it attract a national audience?’. In this instance, Norwich can deliver this for the South-East but may struggle for everyone else. I will discuss attendance later in this post.
Entry and Prices
Admission prices varied but over the week it was always free for CAMRA members before 5pm. A token system was used and the programme was free. Pricing of beer was spot on in my opinion (A strong +6% beer costing just over £2 for a third. Free water and soft drinks were available from behind the bar. The key strength of the day for me was the opening times. It was open all day from 12. Now I make this point for comparison to the ordinary Norwich Beer Festival which is done in sessions. I found this created a far more relaxed attitude as usually at Norwich I find myself trying to get round to all the beers I want to try before the session closes! Once again, I’ll discuss attendance later..
The Halls were divided into three areas. The smaller hall upstairs (Blackfriars) hosted the Champion Beers. There was a marquee to the rear of the venue hosting foreign beers and the main hall had everything else. The layout was clear and easy to navigate. One issue Norwich’s Festival venue will always have is that the space will never allow for much of a seating area. There is seating – but you’d be lucky!
Catering was provided by Pandora’s Kitchen – A popular cafe based in Norwich. There was chilli, chips, pastries and a hog roast available amongst other things. I had a pork bap for £6. It was very good. St Andrews Hall doesn’t really have space for more than one caterer.
A phenomenal list of dark beer. It was also pleasing to see so much beer still available on the Saturday. See my Twitter feed for more info on what I tried. It was an absolute pleasure to try Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild for the first time.
Now I had an incredible day out. I got to try lots of beer which I thought might have gone by the Saturday and it wasn’t that busy meaning I could do so in comfortable surroundings. But of course, this equated to a great festival experience for me but perhaps not so much of a good one for the organisers. I know the organisers were expecting a number similar to that they get through the door for Norwich Beer Festival and this certainly wasn’t the case. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Firstly, after nearly 40 years the October Norwich beer Festival is very much engrained in the local consciousness whereas this is new. Secondly, Norwich is arguably not the easiest location to get to for those wishing to attend from further afield.
I hope for the organisers sake that many of those who did attend this past week like myself had a great time and will spread the word and it will be busier next year. Norwich is a great city for beer and if more people realise this; the Norwich NWAF can grow in popularity.